Premier Mark McGowan and Opposition Leader Zak Kirkup went head-to-head on Thursday night in the only televised debate of the 2021 Western Australian election campaign.

The debate, hosted by Tim McMillan and broadcast live on Seven’s Flashpoint program, ran for 40 minutes. In total, the two major party leaders – McGowan representing Labor and Kirkup representing the Liberals – were asked only six questions (plus follow-ups) by the panel, which featured Geof Parry and Jessica Page of Seven News, as well as Peter Law, the state political editor of The West Australian.

Of the six questions posed to the leaders, three related to COVID-19, healthcare and state border closures. The leaders were not asked about climate change, homelessness, public transport, education, police or the justice system.

The debate took place in unusual circumstances, with Liberal Party leader Zak Kirkup having already conceded the election, 16 days before election day itself. Kirkup’s concession followed a horrendous Newspoll result for the Liberals, who polled just 23% of the primary vote and 32% of the two-party-preferred vote.

From the very beginning, subtle differences between the leaders presented themselves on screen. McGowan opted for a red tie, while Kirkup, demonstrating his modernity, wore no tie at all. McGowan could be seen reading his opening address from a sheet of paper, whereas Kirkup, requiring no notes, kept eye contact with the camera.

McGowan’s opening address focused on his government’s achievements, claiming that his government “made TAFE affordable again,” and “finally secured [Western Australia’s] fair share of the GST,” as well as bringing the state back to a budget surplus. McGowan also promised to “expand high-tech manufacturing” and build a new women’s and babies’ hospital, while also pledging to upgrade existing hospitals.

Kirkup, seemingly resigned to the fact that Labor would almost certainly win the upcoming election, pitched the Liberal Party as a means by which to restrict Labor’s power in the legislature and hold the Labor government to account, rather than presenting the Liberals as an alternative government. Kirkup warned of the dangers of one party having total control of the parliament, repeatedly emphasising the need for “checks and balances” while urging West Australians to vote based on their local candidates, instead of focusing on party leaders.

Recent opinion polls have indicated that Labor may win a rare majority of seats in the Legislative Council, as well as a majority in the Legislative Assembly. McGowan, however, was reluctant to make any assumptions about the election result, and when asked whether a landslide victory would be bad for democracy, twice evaded the question.

After the first question focused mainly on Kirkup’s extraordinary decision to concede the election before it occurred, the following section of the debate focused on trust. The panel played a Labor Party campaign advertisement, which mocked Kirkup for his youth and questioned his ability to “handle the pressure,” devised after Kirkup revealed that he had once been diagnosed with depression. McGowan denied that the ad was a reference to Kirkup’s mental health history, and equated it to a Liberal campaign ad likening him to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Kirkup responded that he was not offended by Labor’s advertisements.

Asked about his government’s lack of transparency, McGowan rejected the premise of the question and countered that his government had earned the trust of the electorate through its economic achievements, claiming that Western Australia has “the lowest debt per capita of any state in Australia” and is “the only state in Australia that has a budget surplus.” McGowan also noted that he had cut payroll tax, but refused to say who would replace retiring Ben Wyatt as Treasurer if the Labor government were re-elected.

The third question concerned state border closures, and inspired bipartisan agreement between the two leaders, each of whom promised to be guided entirely by the Chief Health Officer on coronavirus-related restrictions. McGowan, in particular, was reluctant to appear optimistic about COVID-19 despite the vaccine rollout beginning in Australia. “We don’t know how well the vaccine will work,” McGowan said, before adding that he was confident in the vaccine’s ability. “I’ve been the most cautious of all the premiers, about everything,” he boasted in reference to his COVID-19 response.

The leaders were then asked whether they would “blindly” follow the health advice, even if they disagreed with it. For both McGowan and Kirkup, the answer boiled down to ‘yes’, although Kirkup suggested that hotel quarantine policies had not been careful enough. “We’ve seen, unfortunately, in recent times, that there have been mistakes in hotel quarantine,” Kirkup pointed out, adding that the Liberal Party had developed “six constructive ways to improve the safety” of hotel quarantine in Western Australia, including “a ban on second jobs” and ensuring full personal protective equipment for hotel security workers. He highlighted an example of a hotel quarantine worker not wearing a mask while on duty.

McGowan admitted that “the system hasn’t been perfect,” and also made the dubious claim that hotel quarantine is “technically a Commonwealth responsibility.” Section 51 of the Australian Constitution gives federal parliament the ability to make laws regarding quarantine, but the Constitution does not take this lawmaking ability away from the states, nor does it indicate that quarantine is a ‘responsibility’ of either the states or the Commonwealth.

Kirkup warned that Western Australia’s health system was already under so much pressure that it would not necessarily be able to handle a serious COVID-19 outbreak, citing alarming ambulance ramping statistics. However, Kirkup failed to adequately explain how Liberal policy would fix the issue. McGowan attributed the problem to a growing need for medical care, mentioning “an elevation in the number of mental health cases” in Western Australia.

McGowan was also questioned by panelist Peter Law about the Murdoch medihotel. “At the last election, Mr McGowan, you promised a medihotel would open in Murdoch this year. That land is still a sandpit. Why haven’t you delivered on that promise?” Law asked, to which McGowan responded that the project was underway. The medihotel is now scheduled to open in 2023.

Finally, the panel asked what the signature policy of each leader would be. McGowan seized the opportunity to discuss Labor’s policy on transport, an issue that had been neglected by the panel, although McGowan struggled to generate enthusiasm for the topic. McGowan was also asked whether he would fix malapportionment in Western Australia’s electoral system, which currently gives rural and regional areas a disproportionately large number of seats in the state’s Legislative Council. However, McGowan stated that it was “not on [his] agenda” and stated that his government would “always ensure that regional WA receives enhanced representation.” McGowan could not adequately explain why he believed regional votes should continue to have a greater value than metropolitan votes.

Kirkup criticised the government for allowing the state economy to become “more specialised, not diversified” and, once again, warned of Labor being allowed to “run wild […] without accountability” if it wins a landslide victory.

Ultimately, COVID-19 dominated the debate, while traditional state election issues were pushed aside. The panel seemed intent on portraying the election as a referendum on Mark McGowan’s handling of COVID-19, seldom encouraging discussion of other policy issues. As McGowan and Kirkup both promised unconditionally to be led by the Chief Health Officer on matters related to COVID-19, the lack of debate regarding other issues denied the leaders an opportunity to truly differentiate themselves from one another on policy, an outcome that can only have been detrimental to the Liberal Party, which trails significantly in the polls.